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US crime rate at lowest point in decades. Why America is safer now.

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The data point to a persistent perception gap among Americans. Despite strong evidence of crime dropping over recent decades, the public sees the reverse. "Recent Gallup polls have found that citizens overwhelmingly feel crime is going up even though it is not," says Professor Fox. "This is because of the growth of crime shows and the way that TV spotlights the emotional. One case of a random, horrific shooting shown repeatedly on TV has more visceral effect than all the statistics printed in a newspaper."

In many police departments across the US, changes during the past decade or more are hard to overstate, say many law enforcement experts.

Technology has given detectives powerful new tools with which to analyze blood and DNA samples or other forensic evidence, for instance.

Computerized "hot spot" crime mapping has also helped police connect dots in ways that were more difficult before.

From pushpins to databases

"We used to put pins on a map to figure out what the patterns were and where to concentrate our limited resources," says Tod Burke, a former police officer in Maryland who now teaches criminal justice at Radford University in Virginia. "Now we have databases and computers. It's really gotten a lot more sophisticated."

Beyond technology, law enforcement personnel are much better educated and trained today than ever before, adds John Paitakes, professor of criminal justice at Seton Hall University in New Jersey. They've also benefited from leaders like William Bratton, who recast policing in Boston, New York City, and Los Angeles by applying the "broken window" theory posited by social scientist James Q. Wilson in 1982. The theory held that run-down and vandalized areas were more prone to serious crime than were areas kept in better order.

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